The small reddish-orange shrimp appear briefly in mid-winter in fish markets, a favorite served as a holiday appetizer. But the period that these sweet-tasting shellfish can be purchased will likely get shorter.
These are Gulf of Maine northern shrimp, Pandalus borealis, the only locally harvested shrimp. Their slightly tacky texture when served raw as “Ama Ebi” makes them popular in sushi restaurants.
They are caught by a handful of boats from Gloucester and New Hampshire with the center of the fishery, involving more than 275 boats, off the coast of Maine.
As federal restrictions on Gulf of Maine cod and other groundfish have tightened, fishermen have increasingly turned to catching northern shrimp. The pressure on the stock has risen, surpassing the catch limit in weeks and forcing the fishery closed almost before it opens in recent years.
The 2012 fishery surpassed the 4,000 metric ton limit by 2,000 metric tons in February, and that was that. A $4 million to $5 million boat price fishery, come and gone in a proverbial flash.
The competitively abbreviated shrimp season has moved the Northern Shrimp Section of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to begin drafting a new system for managing this easily overlooked yet important and even fascinating sea creature and source of income for fishermen.
Among its unique characteristics, the Gulf of Maine northern shrimp — differently named, but a delicacy as well in Iceland and Scandinavia — is sequentially hermaphroditic. It begins life as a male and only after the age of about 3 1/2 years does it become a female, when it produces eggs and moves inshore, and there it is the target of harvesters, some of whom use trawls and some traps, while a few use both.
This unusual biological survival strategy creates critical need for a fishery that avoids taking the smaller males in order to ensure a critical mass of females and the survival of the fishery.
As it is for most species, complicating matters is the sensitivity of the shrimp to water temperature which have been more than 2 degrees higher than historic levels in recent years.
A suite of options for improving the management of Gulf of Maine northern shrimp has been presented at public comment meetings.
The section team was in Gloucester on Thursday night to take comment and ideas. The short-term management regimen is expected to be decided and approved in November.
Michael Waine, chairman of the Northern Shrimp Section, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the commission, made up of ocean states with authority over stocks that remain largely inside the 3-mile boundary for federal waters, has been managing the shrimp via a “soft” catch limit — without penalties.
The draft addendum to the management plan, which contains a statement of the problem and options for responding, cites “incomplete reporting and continued fluctuations in participation” together with “a decline in stock abundance” as having produced an overfished stock — too much taken, and too few left for a healthy stock..
Among the short-term options in the draft addendum is shifting to a “hard” catch limit, with penalties for overfishing, as the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries and Conservation Act mandates for federally managed fisheries. Longterm changes promise to be more controversial
A change that seems inevitable -- and mandatory in the long term — is gear modification. “Protection of smaller shrimp enables them the opportunity to contribute to spawning stock biomass as they make a hermaphroditic transformation,” the draft addendum for public comment states. “Burden to the fishery from any required gear modifications must be considered.”
The short-term recommendation is likely to include a self-sorting grate in the trawl that will allow the smaller males to escape. Long term, the grate could be made mandatory.
Other longer term options introduce the problem of converting the existing open access fishery into limited access. Advocates are the fishermen who work primarily as shrimpers. “Interest and participation in the fishery generally increases as the season length or price increases with many harvesters only participating as a ‘supplemental’ fishery when other fishing opportunities are not available or economically viable,” the document notes.
Monte Rome, of the Gloucester seafood dealer Intershell, said other than sashimi, Gulf of Maine northern shrimp are also adaptable to frying as “popcorn” shrimp.
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.